Lately, in a fit of late-summer restlessness, I’ve been re-watching “The Sopranos.” As a study in family dysfunction and unhealthy appetites, the storied HBO series holds up. But it’s also a fascinating window into how easily humans are seduced by the destructive energies of a leading man.
For all his efforts at therapy, Tony Soprano remains an unrepentant mob boss at heart, unloved by his mother and trained to kill by his father. He winds up corrupting — or destroying — everyone in his orbit.
What makes the show so disturbing is the way viewers become complicit in Tony’s exploits. Because he’s the protagonist, we find ourselves taking vicarious pleasure in his murders, his affairs, his criminal impunity. We cheer, at least inwardly, when he lashes out.
Stop me if any of this sounds depressingly sounding familiar.
Because when I step back and look at the larger relationship between the Fourth Estate and our political landscape, what I see — over and over — is the Tony Soprano effect. Our free press has made a mob boss the nation’s leading man, and in so doing has obscured the remarkable job being done by the actual president.
Consider the day, just a few weeks back, when President Joe Biden signed the so-called CHIPS and Science Act. The bill funnels more than $50 billion into scientific research and manufacturing of semiconductors, to produce high-wage, high-tech jobs in America.
It was a good example of the legislative victories Biden has been racking up of late, despite reflexive Republican opposition. In fact, the CHIPS Act came on the heels of an even bigger win: the Senate’s narrow passage of Biden’s signature climate and health care bill. After a year of delays, the Inflation Reduction Act made good on Biden’s pledge to address climate change, while lowering the cost of prescription drugs and cutting the deficit by some $300 billion.
In any other political environment, these achievements would generate glowing headlines for weeks.
Alas, both bills were overshadowed by news that the FBI had raided the home of you-know-who, to retrieve hundreds of classified documents that the former president had removed from the White House, refused to surrender for months and apparently hidden. As inevitably happens when a new Trump scandal breaks, the coverage was relentless.
[Biden] and his party have done a remarkable job of restoring competence and integrity to a federal government Trump treated as just another racket.
This dynamic has dogged Biden’s first two years in office. No matter how many promises the current president delivers on, the lion’s share of media attention is devoted to the degeneracy of his predecessor.
Consider the massive American Rescue Plan that Biden signed after less than two months in office. To help American households recover from the ravages of the COVID pandemic, the $1.9 trillion package included stimulus payments of $1,400 per person to 90% of American households, a $300 bump for unemployment benefits, and a hike of the child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child.
Biden followed that up, in November of 2021, by signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which infused $1.2 trillion into the nation’s bridges and roads, along with billions to improve our electric grids and water systems.
Overhauling infrastructure was a major priority way back in the Obama era: Remember the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009? It was also a goal that Trump famously touted (you’ll recall, “infrastructure week”), but never actually achieved.
You might expect Biden’s ability to make good on infrastructure investments would leave an impression. Not really. According to polls, barely a quarter of voters even know it passed.
And why might that be?
Because of the Tony Soprano effect. For every story about a Biden achievement — earlier this summer, for instance, Biden signed into law the most substantial gun control measure in three decades, then not quite two weeks ago, he announced a long-awaited plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for thousands of Americans — there have been a hundred stories about Trump’s alleged crimes.
The central media narrative this summer focused on the galling details of Trump’s attempted coup, as outlined in a series of high-profile hearings conducted by the January 6 committee.
There is no doubt that Americans deserve to hear the truth about the former president’s treasonous efforts to overturn his loss to Biden. We should know that Trump threatened state election officials and promoted his Big Lie and assembled slates of fake electors and, yes, that he fomented a mob that attacked a co-equal branch of government, assaulting police officers and calling for Mike Pence to be hanged.
But as we approach the midterms, the media — and us voters — would do well to inform voters of what Biden and the Democrats have done to, er, make America great again.
This is not to suggest that Biden’s presidency has been an unmitigated triumph, free from trouble. There was the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Inflation is a problem, gas prices are high and there are the lingering effects of the pandemic.
But he and his party have done a remarkable job of restoring competence and integrity to a federal government Trump treated as just another racket. And the Democrats have done all this in the face a Republican party dominated by demagogues and conspiracy theorists, who vote no on any bill that might improve the lives of their constituents, then attempt to take credit for the benefits.
According to current polling, Republicans are likely to take back the House, which will surely usher in an era of performative nonsense, and Democrats could maintain control of the Senate. Biden’s approval rating is on the rise, precisely because he and the Democrats have amassed a genuine record to run on.
If the media chooses to put substance above scandal, and focuses on each party’s legislative record, Biden yet might buck the historical trend and keep his Congressional majority. If they keep promoting the Tony Soprano effect, well, to quote the man, you can fuggedaboutit.